When Design Is Too Good: Stunning Border Signage Is Deemed a Threat

The new U.S.-Canada border crossing station at Massena, NY, as seen from the Canadian side.Photo by Michael Moran.

Canadian border

The new U.S.-Canada border crossing station at Massena, NY, as seen from the Canadian side.
Photo by Michael Moran.


The graphic designer Michael Bierut, a partner working in the New York office of the firm Pentagram, designed a 21-foot sign for the new U.S.-Canada border crossing at Massena, New York. The sign, as well as the building, which was designed by architectsSmith-Miller & Hawkinson, has received substantial praise as a bold anddaring piece of federal design. Too daring, perhaps. The sign is beingdismantled by the Customs and Border Protection Agency for fear that it will bea target for terrorists. I asked Bierut about how the sign came to be and whyit’s coming down.

EL: I wasexcited to see a piece of graphic design on the front page of the New York Times Artssection recently,but then I was disappointed to learn that the sign is being dismantled. Doesgraphic design only get covered when it has been deemed a failure?

MB: It’s apity, but maybe it’s inevitable that graphic design only gets mainstreamattention when there’s some kind of problem with it. Look at the recent debaclewith Pepsi’s Tropicana packaging, or, for that matter, the design of the 2000Palm Beach County “butterfly” ballot. When graphic design works well,it tends to just become a part of everyday life, which is really all we wantedwith our sign in Massena.


EL: Describethe design process that resulted in the sign. How does the sign interact withthe architecture? What were you trying to achieve?

MB: When ourteam was working with the architects, the wonderful Laurie Hawkinson and HenrySmith-Miller, we all agreed that it would be great to have some kind oflarge-scale, figurative element on the building. The building itself isbeautiful, amazingly efficient and incredibly functional. And of course costwas at the top of everyone’s mind throughout the process. There was no budgetfor decoration or art. The only applied figurative element on the building werethe functional signs to guide travelers around. So we thought a big sign wouldcreate a kind of ceremonial moment to mark the significance of the building.Public buildings have had inscriptions for years: every New Yorker knows thatlong passage about “Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night” thatappears on the main post office building on Eighth Avenue. In a way, this signwas meant to be a 21st-century version of that.

Most of myvacations as a child were car trips, and long car trips can be boring for kids.The most dramatic moments always came as you crossed a border, even if it wasjust that first glimpse of the big OHIO sign on I-80 when you enter the statefrom Western Pennsylvania. So we thought it would be great to create a similarmoment with a big UNITED STATES sign.


EL: TheCustoms and Border Protection Agency is dismantling the sign because they seeit as a security threat. The words “United States” rendered in suchlarge letters could invite terrorist attacks. Was there any discussion duringthe design process or more recently about using a less provocative message,such as “Hello,” “Good Bye,” or “E-ZPass”?


MB: We didtalk about what the message should be, but both the design team and the clientteam thought, at the time, that there could be nothing more neutral than simplythe name of the country you’re entering. Other messages might raise languageissues, or seem overtly provocative. Being provocative was the last thing on ourminds. By the way, if you’re looking for potentially provocative messages thatour country shoves in people’s faces at border crossings, I’d call yourattention to one of my least favorite recent designs, the design of the new U.S.passport. It’s filled with eagles, flags, passages from historic documents andaphorisms that may be heartfelt statements of patriotism, but they areabsolutely anything but neutral.

EL: Pentagrampartner Paula Scher titled a book about her work Make It Bigger,referring to the fact that clients often ask graphic designers to use largertype. Along the road to the Canada border sign, were you ever asked to make itsmaller?


MB: The scaleissue is interesting. When you’re up on the Canadian border, 21 feet isnothing. It’s dwarfed by the surrounding landscape. So just creating, say, somebig 21-foot-tall colored light poles wouldn’t have seemed dramatic. However,we’re used to reading type that you can measure in inches, or in fractions ofan inch. So a 21-foot-tall letter “U” is enormous. It has a littlebit of the effect of a Claes Oldenberg sculpture, or maybe an Ed Ruschapainting: Think of the iconic Hollywood sign.

I don’t recallanyone asking us to make the sign smaller.

EL: Do youthink the Statue of Liberty is an inviting target for terrorists?


MB: Of coursethe Statue of Liberty, sadly, might be considered a potential terrorist target.It’s really filling the same function as the Massena sign. It was designed tobe the first thing you see as you’re about to enter our country. That’s why itwas closed to visitors after 9/11. And it was a great moment when it wasreopened this summer. I The reopening seemed to signal that we were taking adifferent stand, perhaps a bolder stand, in the face of external threats.

lower manhattan

All thisaside, I want to stress that I’m hesitant to second guess any of our officerswho’ve been charged with keeping us safe. I learned my own lesson about this.Ten years ago, we got an assignment to create a wayfinding system for lowerManhattan. One of the elements in the system we designed was a 4-sided sign,small, about six feet tall, to provide information about nearby destinations.When we were picking locations for the signs, I was told that none of these4-sided ones would be allowed on the World Trade Center site. When we askedwhy, we were told that the security people there, still on alert after the 1993bombing, were concerned that the signs could be used to conceal some kind ofexplosive device. I remember thinking privately that they were being overlyparanoid. All the rest of our signs were installed by the summer of 2001. Thencame September 11, and I remember thinking that maybe it was impossible to betoo paranoid, even about something as seemingly harmless as signs.

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EllenLupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, NationalDesign Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFAprogram at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (MICA). Anauthor and illustrator of numerous books, articles, and blogs ondesign, she is populist critic, frequent lecturer, and 2007 AIGA GoldMedalist. Now working on Cooper-Hewitt’s 2010 National DesignTriennial, Lupton also co-curated the museum’s current sustainabilityexhibition, Design for a Living World. Ellen Lupton’s latest book, Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things (2009), is co-authored with her twin sister, Julia; and her books Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book (2008) and D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself(2006) are co-authored with her MFA students. Baltimore-based Luptonand husband Abbott Miller, a partner in the design firm Pentagram, metas students at The Cooper Union and collaborate on books, exhibitions,and their kids Jay and Ruby.


About the author

Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist.


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